Changing the face of politics
Claudia Chender (left) and Angela Simmonds are running for seeking the leadership of the provincial Liberals and NDP, respectively. Photos: Bruce Murray
Nova Scotia has never elected a woman premier — Angela Simmonds and Claudia Chender are both working to change that
Approached about running for the Liberals one month before the provincial election in 2021, Angela Simmonds didn’t just have her eyes on a seat in the legislature — she wanted to lead the party.
While she was executive director of the Land Titles Initiative, a government project to help Black Nova Scotians get clear title of their land, she came to a crossroads.
“I was in a position where I could make some changes, but also wasn’t at the top to enforce the changes,” she says. “It’s hard to work within those boundaries and not be able to create legislation for change. My frustration was that we are building relationships and having conversations, but we’re not changing the minds of people who are developing these policies in other departments.”
Simmonds has faced racism and sexism throughout her life.
“I remember being followed back to my office, someone closing the door and telling me I should only speak when I’m spoken to — I’m a new lawyer, a woman, and that was not the time for me to speak,” she says.
“I remember feeling in that moment so enraged … It wasn’t because I wasn’t smart enough to be in the room or the issues weren’t relevant, but because I was a Black woman. That’s a moment that has shaped me.”
Claudia Chender has faced sexism too. An MLA since 2017, she had gotten many “weird” correspondences, but she expected that, acknowledging politics requires thick skin. One experience with another MLA, an older woman, stays with her though.
“(She) said to me on several occasions, ‘Wow, you have a young family. I could never have done this job when I had small children; I would have felt too guilty,’” she says. “That comment stopped me in my tracks because it was designed to kind of pierce that softest, most vulnerable part of being a mom, which is that you constantly feel worried and guilty that you’re going to mess up your kids.”
That fuelled her decision to seek the NDP leadership.
“I have twin daughters. They’re 10, and I want them to know they can use their voice to do whatever they want,” she says. Chender says she never aspired to be leader. Shortly after last year’s election, Gary Burrill announced his resignation. People began urging Chender to run and after two months, she decided to make the leap.
“There are barriers we can certainly break down for women, gender queer folks, and all kinds of people who face challenges and are marginalized,” she says. “The reality is that being a parent of small children is a lot: having busy, fulfilling work and being a parent. It made sense that I continue to push our vision forward: a Nova Scotia where governments work for everyone.”
Chender entered politics out of frustration with how Stephen McNeil’s government handled education and labour issues and the cancellation of the film tax credit. She wanted to amplify underrepresented voices.
Her galvanizing moment as an MLA was then-premier Stephen McNeil’s dispute with the teacher’s union. Her son was locked out for a day, work to rule was in effect, and he did not have a Christmas concert. While the work-to-rule legislation was debated in the House, she felt it was a flawed bill.
The NDP proposed many amendments to the bills; the reaction of teachers in the province motivated her to run.
“Pages started bringing in notes and piling them on my desk,” she says. “There were notes, phone messages from teachers around the province, saying, ‘Thank you for fighting for us and for doing this. Know that we’re all watching.’ I believe that we can have a government that actually can respond to the real lives and communities of this province, rather than making decisions based on spreadsheets.”
Both Simmonds and Chender could change Nova Scotia’s political landscape, with women leading both opposition parties. Simmonds would be the first Black leader of a major Nova Scotian political party.
Throughout Canada’s history, women and people in marginalized groups have been underrepresented in political office, explains Erin Crandall, a political science professor at Acadia University.
“We see that elected politics continues to be a predominantly male and white venture, so a lot of the barriers exist within political parties,” she says. “We can identify that when political parties themselves make the effort to recruit from underrepresented groups, that this is the first stage that needs to happen … We have seen some change in attitudes amongst political parties that there is greater effort to recruit from groups that historically have not been well represented in elected politics.”
After being one of a record-high four Black members elected to the House last summer, Simmonds became the first Black deputy speaker in Nova Scotian history. Chender has broken barriers being the first woman House leader in the province.
While in opposition, both have reached across party lines to propose and pass legislation. Simmonds introduced the Dismantling Racism and Hate Act, which is scheduled to return to legislature during the spring session. Meanwhile, Chender successfully championed legislation creating no-protest spaces around hospitals for women accessing reproductive health care.
Only seven months into political office, Simmonds continues to adjust to her role. Before she was an MLA, Simmonds played the role of social advocate, championing issues affecting her community. Now, she sees her duty more as learning and navigating conversations.
“That’s been the most challenging because I’m a strong voice: I speak truth to power,” she says. “Sometimes you’re labelled … as a Black woman with a chip on her shoulder. My riding is very diverse … [I’m] often asked how would I serve the other communities that don’t look like me. I care if my son can buy a house. I care that we have jobs. My predecessor didn’t look like all the communities they served, but was there for 16 years.”
Chender considers herself lucky to be elected into an NDP caucus where mothers of school-aged children are in the majority, but still sees many obstacles.
“One of the things I’ve championed since I was elected is a whole suite of democratic reforms … like a legislative parliamentary calendar,” she says. “When we’re going into the legislature, how long we’ll be there and what will our hours be? Most people know their hours and terms of employment. We don’t. All of that becomes much more difficult for somebody who has limited means, mobility or capacity in any way. It’s impossible. By not having those structures that allow everyone to be able to participate in this work in the same way, it’s a very strong barrier to many people who might not ever think of putting their name forward.”
Chender says she draws inspiration from her colleagues, including Susan Leblanc, Lisa Lachance, and Suzy Hansen, as they teach her how to effectively help people. Chender’s primary role model is late NDP leader Alexa McDonough.
“She always advocated for what she thought was right, regardless of the political tides of the day, and she did it clearly, fiercely and forcefully,” she says. “She earned the respect of everyone around her. She is such a model for how to do this work with authenticity, integrity, to be effective.”
Simmonds cites former lieutenant-governor Mayann Francis as a mentor. She adds that she finds political role models scarce in Nova Scotia.
“There has not been many people that look like me,” she says. “The only people really who, at the core, guide and motivate me to do all things are my children.”
Chender believes misogyny is why more women don’t seek the top jobs in Nova Scotian politics. She points to when McDonough was first elected.
“There were constant questions impugning her basic reputation, status as a woman and a mother,” she says. “That was the reality for a long time. At this moment in Nova Scotia politics, that is less common, although not altogether gone. We still very much live in a patriarchal world and culture. We still fail to address and unpack that properly. Our legislature is not a welcoming space for everyone. We continue to chip away at that edifice.”
And while there are fewer men in the legislature, much remains the same.
“The idea that it’s magically going to change as more women come in, I think is fantasy on some level,” she says. “It’s heavy lifting; it takes time, effort, and we’re just continuing to put in that effort.”
Money also keeps women and people of colour out of politics. To fund her leadership run, Simmonds had to raise $30,000. One way of fundraising was asking her network of friends to donate $1,000 each, making them eligible for tax rebates. “Some of our communities that still struggle, are oppressed and don’t have the opportunity won’t be able to have access to that,” she says. “We need to have a better process where we support women.”
Crandall emphasizes the need for those deep pocketbooks.
“You have to put money forward in order to be an official candidate for leader of a political party,” she says. “If you don’t have existing networks, that is something that can act as a barrier to your candidacy. If we look around how Canadian society operates and who’s in positions of power in terms of having access to fundraising tools, again, historically, women and equity seeking groups would have less access to these types of resources. These are still trailblazers in Canadian politics, and now they very often have to work harder and do more to make their candidacies more competitive.”
And if they overcome the fundraising hurdle, Crandall says women and marginalized people are often sacrifical candidates.
“They’re being placed into ridings where if you’re the Liberal candidate, you know that historically, the Progressive Conservative Party is likely to win,” she says. “Even when you have close to 50 per cent of your candidates on the ballot who are women, only 30 per cent, for example, actually get elected. Parties are increasingly aware of these barriers and are addressing them, but certainly the changes are not happening quickly.”
Nova Scotia is one of three provinces and territories that has not yet elected a woman as premier. Crandall feels Simmonds and Chender are in good shape to smash that glass ceiling.
“When people see elected representatives who look like them and have experiences that are similar to them, that matters in terms of how they feel about politics and the ability of politicians to represent you,” Crandall says.
Simmonds hopes she paves a path for more people to follow her lead.
“I hope I won’t be the last,” she says. “We have made progress, but not enough. If we think about the legislature, there are four (Black) people, but it’s the first time it’s ever happened. I’m disappointed that I would be the first but also excited that we all know there are firsts. Part of being a first means you’re hopefully not going to be the last.”
ANGELA SIMMONDS BIO
- Born and raised in Cherry Brook.
- Was a lawyer, social advocate, and community leader: executive director of Title Land Initiatives and manager of access with the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society. She also articled at Nova Scotia Legal Aid’s Halifax Youth Office and received a Juris Doctorate from Dalhousie University.
- With the grassroots North Preston Recovery Initiative (under Title Land Initiatives), Simmonds pushed government to commit $2.7 million to address the legacy of systemic racism relating to land ownership in historic Black Nova Scotian communities.
- Worked as a community outreach worker with the Halifax School Board and was an employment counsellor with the YMCA. She helped run family-owned J&J Cleaning Company and was an administrative assistant at the IWK Health Centre’s psychology department.
- In 2020, Simmonds was named Top 100 Accomplished Black Canadian (ABC) Women. She has won numerous awards for her work in the community including the Dr. Burnley Allan “Rocky” Jones Human Rights Award and Judge Corinne Sparks Award.
- Has volunteered with Feed Nova Scotia, the Buddy Daye Learning Institute, the Preston Bulls Basketball Association, the Tatamagouche Centre, and the Electoral Boundary Commission.
- Simmonds was first elected as an MLA for Preston in August 2021 and is the House of Assembly’s first Black Deputy Speaker.
- Married with three children, Simmonds enjoys spending her downtime with them and her three-year-old grandson.
CLAUDIA CHENDER BIO
- First elected as MLA in 2017, represents Dartmouth South in the House of Assembly; the first woman House leader of a recognized party in Nova Scotia.
- NDP critic for Justice, the Status of Women, Economic Development, Natural Resources and Renewables, and Fisheries and Aquaculture.
- A longtime member of the Dartmouth Business Commission, Chender now sits as ex-officio. Advocates for a vibrant, locally owned, and supported business community.
- A lawyer, graduated from University of Victoria in 2004. Studied anthropology and political science, earning a bachelor of arts from Dalhousie University in 1999. She also has publishing and business experience.
- Chender has a partner and is mother to three school-aged children.